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Who Controls the Internet?

In part one of our three-part series on Internet governance, we look at whether the World Wide Web is truly open and free, and whether Web regulations are likely to stay as they are today.

The idea that anyone is controlling the Internet runs contrary to common knowledge. The Web has a tradition of hosting free content with relatively little government or regulatory interference, and is today backed by a fervent army of supporters ready to defend a free and open platform.

And in celebration of 20 years of a free World Wide Web, research laboratory CERN recently restored the world’s first website: April 30, 1993 was the day the Web’s source code became publicly available on a royalty-free basis, setting a precedent of free, open and transparent public participation and usage online. Many individuals and organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), maintain it is the free and open nature of the Web that has permitted the historically unrivaled technological growth seen today, while providing an outlet for the nation’s most cherished right of free speech.

But the Internet is not completely free, nor is access uniform across the globe -- nor are things likely to stay exactly as they are today.

Perhaps most notorious is China’s policy of blocking access inside the country to any online content that might be perceived by leadership as defaming or threatening to government, or any content considered unsavory (think violence, sex and gambling).

A 2012 study conducted by Harvard researchers found that about 13 percent of Chinese users’ social media posts were blocked, mostly to prevent large groups from meeting or organizing. But even in the United States, Canada and parts of Europe, where the Web is considered mostly free, things appear to be changing.

America Attempts to Regulate the Internet

Over the past three years, there has been a barrage of controversial attempts by the American government to institute some form of regulation over the Internet.

In 2010, we saw the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act. In 2011, the Protect IP Act (PIPA) was introduced. Later that same year, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was also introduced. And just one month after that, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) was introduced, later stopped, then revived again, only to be stopped again this past April.

And there were many others that most people never heard of, such as the SECURE IT Act of 2012, the Cybersecurity Act, the Precise Act, and the Federal Information Security Amendment Act of 2012.

Each of these bills had slightly different aims. Some were designed to prevent fraud, some were to stop content piracy, and some were purported to be a safeguard against terrorism. But in nearly every case, civil liberties groups, technology groups and groups like the EFF fervently opposed passage of these bills. Why? Because they were generally viewed as either being harmful to the free and open nature of the Web or violating personal privacy or other civil rights.

To hear some tell it over the past three years, one might think the federal government was staffed by Bond villains. But the U.S. government isn’t evil, and they even have good intentions -- they just don’t how to handle the Web, said Lawrence Pingree, a Gartner research director specializing in security.

Making laws is what the government does, Pingree said. For instance, this past February, Illinois State Sen. Ira Silverstein wrote a bill that would have essentially eliminated anonymity online.

Ignoring the fact that such a change would be nearly impossible to enforce, Silverstein was initially unaware of how unforgiving Internet advocates can be: It didn’t take long for the senator to realize his mistake and -- following a thorough berating from all angles combined with a few threats -- Silverstein quickly withdrew his bill.

The senator clearly isn’t some technological mastermind, plotting to take over the Internet. He just saw a problem, “Internet bullying,” he was reported as saying, and then he wrote a bill he thought could have solved the problem. He was a go-getter who didn’t understand what he was up against, and that’s what has been happening with a lot of the Internet governance bills over the last few years, Pingree said.

When SOPA was introduced, for instance, it appeared legislators had good intentions, Pingree added. “It sounds good as an ideal if you’re on the ethical side of things,” he said. “But the problem is that all these individual companies have to spend money to filter the stuff, and that’s not easy.”

The sheer amount of extra work such a law would have required of website operators would have hamstrung everyone. “In that case it just becomes egregious to be able to maintain,” he said. “There’s lots of good-intentioned laws, and when you look at politicians, they want to do a good thing. The problem is on the implementation side.” 

Likewise, CISPA was halfway a good idea, Pingree said. It’s the government’s job to identify threats and then defend the country against them, he said, and today there isn’t a comprehensive way for the government to defend against online threats. A cyberattack on a power-grid or dam, for instance, could prove deadly, or at least costly. CISPA would have created a central system for businesses to voluntarily share information with the government, which could have helped the government respond to cyberattacks more quickly -- and maybe act more intelligently in general.

But the act also would have created problems, Pingree said, which is why it’s fortunate the bill died.

From a privacy standpoint, CISPA could have radically changed the Web’s dynamic. Currently, private businesses can -- and do -- share information with government as outlined by their privacy policies. Google, for instance, cooperates with governments around the world, the U.S. government included, often removing online content that violates copyright or libel law.

Google and Internet service providers in the U.S. have also responded to requests from law enforcement to share information that can help in criminal investigations. The current precedent is that companies share information on a case-by-case basis, when it’s requested, and sometimes the companies choose to say no. And CISPA, Pingree said, would have been the online equivalent of putting up 24-hour surveillance cameras. The bill was designed to be optional for companies, but once they opted in, government would have started a new practice of filtering through their data -- a large bucket of information -- rather than receiving occasional drops when they asked for them. “It opens the gates so that people can freely share with the government with impunity,” he said.

CISPA also could have led to ethical problems, Pingree said. Security information obtained by the government through CISPA may have been difficult to put into a fair context. Within a single organization, he said, it can sometimes be difficult to see what’s really going on, but if the government began collecting a wide swathe of private network data, the picture may have become even more muddled, and people may have started getting busted for things they didn’t do. Say your car was stolen and you received a red-light ticket in the mail, with no way to prove your innocence -- but on a grander scale.

What's worse, if the government began abusing the system, CISPA could have been used to profile individuals or groups. As the saying goes in the law enforcement community, “Follow any car long enough, and they’re bound to break a law.” It’s exactly this kind of online environment that groups, like the EFF, are trying to prevent from infiltrating what has traditionally been a place of free and open collaboration where people can create, share and speak freely, without fear of punishment.

Maybe CISPA detractors had nothing to worry about. After all, President Barack Obama stated that he would have vetoed the bill if it had come to his desk. But one way or another, the U.S. government seems intent on implementing some new form of Internet governance, whether to protect the nation’s infrastructure, as repeatedly called for by the Obama administration, or to cut down on spam email or to stop online bullying, or any number of other causes to which a state senator might want to attach his name. It's clear that U.S. legislators aren’t going to stop legislating, and the Internet is clearly on their radar.

Stay tuned for part two of our "Who Controls the Internet?" series, where we look at whether agencies like the International Telecommunications Union will play a role in future development of the World Wide Web. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.